Durand Line Border Dispute Remains Point of Contention for Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations

The "Durand Line" (marked in red) demarcates the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On multiple occasions over the past several years, Afghan and Pakistani forces have clashed with one another along the Durand Line that demarcates the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Durand Line was drawn in 1893 by Britain, the ruling power in the region during the 19th century. The implementation of the line resulted in the separation of hundreds of thousands of people from their relatives and tribes on both sides of the border.

Periodic skirmishes and tensions between Pakistani and Afghan security personnel along the disputed border greatly aggravate an already-deteriorating bilateral relationship, with each side accusing the other of insincerity when it comes to counter-terrorism. On April 15, 2018, Afghan and Pakistani forces exchanged fire in Afghanistan’s Khost province at a border post handled by the Pakistani army in the Laka Tigga area of the Lower Khurram Agency. The clash resulted in the deaths of two Pakistani soldiers, with five others being injured.

Kabul continuously blames Islamabad for the ongoing violence and the resiliency of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Afghan officials claim that Pakistan is doing nothing to address the presence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Pakistan vehemently denies these claims.

The Durand Line has complicated relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan ever since the founding of Pakistan in 1947. More recently, conditions in Afghanistan have considerably deteriorated. Levels of insecurity, lawlessness, and drug trafficking are all increasing, and Afghan warlords are gaining increasing amounts of influence. The opium trade, along with that of other drugs currently account for nearly half of Afghanistan’s GDP, according to some estimates. According to one study, the Afghan border with Pakistan has become a hub for illicit drug exports.

In an effort to address the cross-border flow of militants and drugs, Pakistan initiated construction on a border fence in 2018 along the Durand Line—the roughly 1,622 mile-long border (2,611 kilometers) shared with Afghanistan. Pakistan believes the barrier would improve the security environment in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. A senior officer in the Pakistani army stated that “[the fence] would greatly help to stop cross-border movements of militants.” Afghanistan resolutely opposes the fence’s construction.

Pakistan considers the Durand Line to be the established international border between itself and Afghanistan. The Afghan government rejects Islamabad’s claim and sees the Durand Line as an artificial border that was created by the British and agreed to by Amir Abdul Rahman Khan in 1893. The demarcation subsequently resulted in the separation of members of the Pashtun ethnic group.

The Afghan government views the Durand Line border as an artificial border between two countries which was signed by Amir Abdul Rahman Khan in 1893. In the final days of British colonial rule—before the founding of Pakistan—Pashtuns residing on the Indian side of the Durand Line, led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (known as the “Frontier Gandhi”) were opposed the creation of Pakistan. At the time, the Pashtun identity was based on nationalism rather than religion; thus Pashtuns were opposed to the formation of an Islamic Pakistan.

When it became clear that the British were intent on partitioning India into two sovereign states, the Pashtuns demanded their own territory, Pashtunistan, which would either be an independent state or incorporated into Afghanistan. Instead, the British were intent on establishing a stable Pakistan and it was decided that the Pashtun-dominated North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) was to become part of Pakistan.

Since Pakistan’s founding in 1947, Islamabad has routinely attempted to refute the Afghan argument that the Durand Line is an “artificial border.” Pakistan regularly dismisses Afghan claims as invalid.

During a recent visit to Kabul by Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, both countries agreed to take series of deescalatory steps, one of which being minimizing cross-border clashes. including fire exchange in borders. In this meeting, Islamabad accused Kabul of taking action against militant groups who continue to attack Pakistani soldiers across the borders in Afghanistan. The Pakistani statement says that “Pakistan urges Afghanistan to focus on taking effective counterterrorism actions, including plugging in of large gaps existing along the Afghan side of Pakistan-Afghanistan border,” adding that “it is also important that the Afghan government refrain from playing the blame game.”

Pakistan, however, will remain committed to destabilizing Afghanistan. Pakistan continues to utilize terrorist groups in Afghanistan as proxies, ensuring Afghanistan remains preoccupied with internal affairs. Both countries must—in good faith—move to address the issues caused by the colonial-era border. Balochistan and portions of the Pashtun tribal areas currently under Pakistani administration should be restored as Afghanistan’s sovereign territory.

Kabul, for its part, should be mindful of its relationship with Pakistan. Afghanistan is landlocked and relies on Pakistani ports. Marvin G. Weinbaum, a former Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst at the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, estimates that Pakistan’s wide-ranging exports to Afghanistan amount to roughly $1.2 billion per year, while it imports over $700 million worth of Afghan goods.

The United States and the European Union need to review their respective policies for Afghanistan in order to foster long-term regional peace, rather than pouring billions of dollars into a war that can’t be won. The disagreement over the Durand Line will continue for the foreseeable future and will present a significant challenge to the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan will continue to view the border dispute as a settled matter, as it defines the matter as a matter of national security. On the other hand, Afghanistan will continue to highlight the unsettled and disputed nature of the border as the root cause of the deteriorating Afghan-Pakistani relationship.

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Hayat Akbari

Hayat Akbari is an independent researcher specializing in human rights issues and Afghan affairs. Hayat is a student of Law and International Relations in Sydney, Australia. He is on Twitter @9Akabri.

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